Timothy Bazzett's Reviews > Boy: Tales of Childhood

Boy by Roald Dahl
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Mar 13, 12

Read in March, 2008

Delightful, dark - and thoroughly enjoyable. I have never read any of Roald Dahl's children's stories, but have always wanted to. His first memoir, BOY, is a very slight volume, less than 200 pages, but it is full of perhaps the most delightful and whimsical vignettes of childhood ever penned. While it is true there are some very shocking references to beatings and "canings" which were apparently quite common in English public schools, administered by both the masters and the older boys, the overall tone of the book is one of wonder and fond reminiscing. This is particularly true when Dahl talks of his home life, which was obviously a very loving albeit often unsupervised time, when boys could just be boys. Dahl's father, a very successful businessman, died when Roald was very young, but his mother, a Norwegian immigrant, kept her large blended family (6 children in all) very well, and stayed in Wales (then England) to raise them all, as her husband would have wanted her to. What I found most interesting in the book (although it was ALL absolutely wonderful) were the stories of young Roald's experiences at various boarding schools. These things happened back in the 20s, and yet many of these tales were so much like my own stories from one year in a Catholic seminary (a boarding school) that I was astounded. For example, when he explains "Prep," which was the same as what we called evening "study hall" at St Joe's in the late 50s.

"Every weekday evening the whole school would sit for one hour in the Main Hall, between six and seven o'clock, to do Prep. The Master on duty for the week would be in charge of Prep, which meant that he sat high up on a dais at the top end of the hall and kept order ... The rules of Prep were simple but strict. You were forbidden to look up from your work, and you were forbidden to talk ..."

This simple descriptive passage took me immediatley back to St Joe's Seminary in Grand Rapids when I was just 13 or so, and sat at my study hall desk right next to my friend Tom Cassleman. We often skirted these strict rules by raising the tops of our desks, ostensibly to get a book or pen, so we could whisper to each other or pass notes, smirking and huffing silently to each other, immensely pleased with ourselves at fooling the priest "master" up on the dais in the center of the hall. Ah, yes, Mr Dahl got it right, even though he himself was a fearful little boy of only nine in his tale, which took place in an English school over thirty years before. I could relate, as could any St Joe's student from those years in the 1950s. As for the canings, they were gone by the 50s in American schools, but we could be sent to see the dreaded Dean of Discipline, Fr Leo, if we were caught for any infractions of the rules. And I did hear rumors of a certain perhaps predatory short Monsignor who invited the smaller boys into his rooms to "counsel" them. Thankfully, since I was already over six feet tall, I never got the call. Another passage in Dahl's story which I immediately felt a kinship with was the one where he talked of the propensity of doctors and dentists in his day who never bothered with anesthetic when operating on children.

"Pain was something we were expected to endure. Anaesthetics and pain-killing injections were not much used in those days. Dentists, in particular, never bothered with them ..."

Yup, I had an old-school dentist, even in the 50s, who didn't believe in "wasting" novocaine on kids. The prevailing theory was that kids didn't really feel pain. I remember crying every time I got a filling, and I got a lot of them back in those pre-fluoride days. Dr Brown would frown and tell me to "stop being such a baby." Bastard! Once again, Dahl understood and got it right. If it isn't obvious yet, I loved this book.
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